Sunday, November 23, 2014
Glancing back through some of the grim and gory fare that has featured on these pages over the five years I’ve been hosting the Winter of Discontent, I started thinking about all the quintessential exploitation directors whose work I’ve considered: Joe D’Amato, Andrea Bianchi, Uwe Boll, Tinto Brass, Cesare Canevari, Enzo G. Castellari, Ruggero Deodato, Jess Franco, Lucio Fulci, Jack Hill, Tobe Hooper, Aldo Lado, Umberto Lenzi, Sergio Martino, Nico Mastorakis, Radley Metzger, Amando De Ossorio, Guilio Questi, Jean Rollin, Joe Sarno, Tom Six, Michele Massimo Tarantini, Bo Arne Vibenius.
One name in particular was missing. Could it be that I hadn’t been doing my job properly? That I hadn’t fully immersed myself in the absolute worst that exploitation cinema has to offer?
I dug back through the archives more thoroughly. There was one reference to him – one minor reference – during an ill-advised overview of the Black Emanuelle films back in 2010. But apart from that, my suspicions were confirmed: in half a decade of seeking out the most venal trash I could find, I had yet to review a film by Bruno Mattei.
The time, ladies and gentlemen, has come.
And what better film with which to break this blog’s Mattei virginity than ‘Hell of the Living Dead’, a.k.a. ‘Virus’, a.k.a. ‘Zombie Creeping Flesh’?
The film starts at a “Hope Centre”, the nature of which isn’t explained until the very end*. It looks like nothing more than an oil refinery and it’s staffed by a lot of scientist types in white coats. The equipment consists of huge 80s mainframe computers, display panels that don’t seem to display very much, and entire swathes of buttons that light up, sometimes in white, sometimes in green. This particular Hope Centre is based in Papua New Guinea and its staff are working on “Operation Sweet Death”. Which seems an oddly named project for a Hope Centre. I started wondering where the other Hope Centres were based and what projects they were working on. “Operation Buy the Farm”? “Operation Swing Low Sweet Chariot”?
So anyway, there’s a sterilisation breach, a dead rat comes back to life and eats a technician, a cloud of green gas gets released and then it’s zombies a-go-go. The project director has enough time to order the centre’s complete isolation and record a message of hollow apology, then the undead are at his office and it’s goodnight Vienna.
Cut to: a terrorist group holding hostages at an American embassy (which American embassy? you ask; where? fucked if I know: the script doesn’t either) and demanding the dismantling of the Hope Centres. A crack anti-terrorist team stage an incursion and swiftly decimate them. That’s “crack anti-terrorist team” as in “squabbling bunch of macho assholes”, by the way. No sooner have they liberated the hostages than they’re sent into the thick of the inhospitable Papuan jungle to investigate the goings-on at the Hope Centre. The Hope Centre’s on the coast, so quite why their mission perameters call for them to go endlessly overland, through jungle, through town, through jungle again and then cross a freaking river in order to get to it I have no idea and neither, again, does the script.
But before we go any further, let’s take a moment to meet these gun-toting good ol’ boys. The platoon commander is called London (Jose Gras) and his small team constitutes Santoro (Franco Garofalo), Osborne (Josep Luis Fonoll) and Vincent (Selen Karay). In terms of characterisation, London is the one who barks orders, Osborne is the one who does the driving and Santoro is the frankly fucking bonkers one who’s zombie-killing modus operandi is to fling himself into the centre of a group of them and scream things like “you wanna eat me?” and “fuck you, I’ll kill all of you” before shooting them in the head**. Not that he ever manages to kill more than one zombie in any group before forcing his way out of the melee and running off.
Subject of the old shoot-’em-in-the-head rule, Santoro is the first and only member of the troop to realise this and he reminds his cronies every time the zombies show up and the guns come out. Every fucking time. And no-one listens!!! Scene after scene, zombie attack after zombie attack, when a quick point-blank to the cranium fight back would decimate their slow-shuffling attackers, these gun-toting douchebags empty cartridge after cartridge and never once go for a motherfucking head shot.
But then again ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ is rife with facepalm moments.
Take the randomly inserted bits of stock footage which suggest that monkeys, elephants, snow owls and marsupials co-exist in the Papuan ecosystem.
Take the United Nations scene, which consists of half a dozen people in suits sitting in an otherwise empty lecture hall and throwing sheaves of paper in the air.
Take the abrupt cut from London and co. beginning their mission to the arrival of intrepid reporter Lia Rosseau (Margit Evelyn Newton) and her cameraman Max (Gabriel Renom) at a deserted township. Lia is there to make a documentary on the outbreak of the virus (oh, sorry, forgot to mention: that snafu at the Hope Centre at the start of the film? it’s now apparently gone global), yet all she has by way of a crew or a production team is one cameraman.
Take the fact that Lia and Max have, for reasons the script yet again fails to explain, hitched a lift with a couple who have decided to bring their pre-pubescent son into the wilds only for him to be injured by an offscreen native and the two are having the most godawful row about whose fault it is. Only one of these two loathsome individuals is even named and they’re both disposed of as zombie fodder (the kid, no surprise, is a zombie in waiting), but not before we’ve suffered their company for five wretched and pointless minutes.
Take the coincidental arrival of London and his boys at the same township and their willingness to allow an investigative reporter and a cameraman to tag along on a secret mission.
Take their arrival at a tribal camp, where Lia Rosseau goes native (she’s previously lived among them for a year – Rousseau: geddit?) by stripping down to a loincloth and daubing herself with body paint (Mattei throws in the most gratuitous boob shot ever to make the cut of an Italian exploitation movie, and when you stop to break down the component parts of that sentence you’ll realise the degree of achievement I’m talking about here). This is the point at which ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ quits ripping off Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ for all it’s worth and rips off ‘Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals’ instead.
Take the “score” by Goblin, which is basically a judicious sampling of their earlier scores for ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Contamination’, the opening credits brazenly trying to con the audience into thinking the Goblin had taken it into the studio especially for Mattei and his collaborators.
And take said collaborators. ‘Hell of the Living Dead’ was co-written by Claudio Fragasso, notorious as a director in his own right for ‘Troll 2’ (and it occurs to me that I have yet to review a Claudio Fragasso film on this blog. Shit.) We shall not speak of John Cabrera’s cinematography. The cast we’ve already mentioned, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider how bad they are. Renom, Fonoll and Karay are merely bland; Gras is incapable of delivering a line of dialogue without pouting like it’s Christmas morning and he got an Action Man when he wanted a G.I. Joe; and Garofalo does bug-eyed crazy in a manner so unrestrained that Dennis Hopper in the middle of a decade-long cocaine binge would probably be moved to advise him to tone it down a bit. But it’s Newton who’s the absolute worst of all, a vacuum into which the very concept of doing anything in front of the camera – let alone acting – disappears and is never seen again. It’s not even a deer-caught-in-the-headlights performance. It’s roadkill and the headlights are five miles distant.
The title is well earned, if just slightly inaccurate. ‘Hell of the Barely Half-Alive’ would have been better; it certainly describes how it feels to watch it.
*Without wishing to get spoilerific, the nature of the Hope Centres is kind of like if Ian Duncan Smith had chaired a think tank on overpopulation.
**He also calls them “monkey faces” at one point, which gave me a nasty little flashback to ‘Fight for Your Life’; and any film that provokes a ‘Fight for Your Life’ flashback is one that automatically loses brownie points.
Friday, November 21, 2014
Moving from Rio de Janiero to Toyko – and blazing a devil-may-care trail through the least salubrious areas of both locations – Takashi Miike’s ‘City of Lost Souls’ pays demented homage to everything from spaghetti westerns to lovers-on-the-run thrillers of the ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ ilk, by way of yakuza epics, a booby-trapped ping-pong table that your average Bond would be proud of, and an ocean-side pay-off that evokes the cynical inevitability of ‘Get Carter’.
If you’re cursing me for a spoiler fiend at this point, relax; half an hour into ‘City of Lost Souls’ and you’ll probably realise where it’s going – it’s just the route it takes that’ll flummox you. Plus, it’s Miike directing. Y’know, the guy who made ‘Rainy Dog’, ‘Full Metal Yakuza’, ‘Audition’, ‘Visitor Q’, ‘Ichi the Killer’ and the ‘Young Thugs’ saga. What were you expecting, a light romantic comedy?
Although, for the record, Miike has made some family-friendly films. They just happen to be overshadowed by his prolific output of bizarre, violent, magnificently fucked-up and decidedly un-family-friendly work. And I do mean prolific: at a still relatively youthful 54 years of age, Miike has racked up 96 credits as director according to IMDb; in 2001 alone, he directed eight features, three of which – ‘Visitor Q’, ‘Ichi the Killer’ and ‘The Happiness of the Katakuris’ – are bizarro masterpieces.
‘City of Lost Souls’ was made the previous year, when Miike obviously decided to take it easy and only direct five movies. It starts as magnificently as any movie I’ve seen. (Okay, it doesn’t quite maintain said ballsy and iconic magnificence, but starting as well as any movie you’ve ever seen is quite some feat.) In short order, Brazilian/Japanese loner Mario (Teah) fucks up a bar full of antagonists, does time for it, gets released, hi-jacks a helicopter at gunpoint, fucks up a prison bus convoy and rescues winsome girlfriend Kei (Michelle Reis). This occupies about the first ten minutes and I watched from the half-inch that constituted the edge of my seat; my jaw was slack, my eyes were bulging and there was a big dumb grin on my face, the likes of which is usually only triggered when my local supermarket has drastically underpriced a bottle of Talisker.
What pollinated this massive surge of movie-love? The iconography; the absurdly stylish direction; the hyperkinetic editing; the use of music. Basically, just how damn cool the whole thing was. (Here I mention again that ‘City of Lost Souls’ never quite sustains its early super-fucking-coolness, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to a certain sense of disappointment that the rest of it is merely good instead of being the best thing that ever slapped its imprint on a reel of celluloid.)
The plot, as it progresses, has Mario and Kei look up Mario’s old flame Lucia (Patricia Manterola) who can put them in touch with Russian go-to guy Khodoloskii (Anatoli Krasnov) and a passage to safer shores. And here the first problem: Reis’s Kei is certainly willowy and pretty, but there’s absolutely no chemistry between her and Mario, whereas Manterola’s Lucia is fiery, wanton and commands the screen as if she’s got the cinematographer on a leash. The lovers-on-the-run aspect of the film – which needs must be the engine that propels the plot through its contrivances, coincidences and (being honest) clichés – never gets off the ground. (Although Kei does have a highly memorable set-piece involving a bottle of vodka and a cigarette lighter.)
The criminal underworld aspect of the film fares better, and runs the gamut of feuding gang bosses, drug deals and cockfights. The cockfight scene is hilarious. While I wouldn’t put it past Miike to film an actual cockfight, it probably occurred to him at some point in the film’s development that it would damage his US and UK distribution to do so; thus he gives us a CGI cockfight. But Miike being Miike eshews the usual CGI-pretending-to-be-real-and-hoping-you-don’t-notice approach. His cockfight is deliberately fake, the capon antagonists throwing kung-fu style moves at each other and even seguing into slo-mo. It’s as if Monte Hellman had got hold of the rushes for ‘Chicken Run’ and re-edited them after an all-nighter of ‘Drunken Master’ films and cheap tequila.
It’s when Miike stops being a sociopathic visionary jester (yes, I know that phrase doesn’t make sense on a technical or linguistic level, but it will once you’ve watched a few of his movies) and films scenes in long static takes or decides to follow conventional narrative beats that ‘City of Lost Souls’ seems to drag. If anybody else was directing, it probably wouldn’t. But when you’re one of Asian cinema’s most extreme practitioners, even the merest hint of normality is an annoyance.
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
A word from your genial host:
Greetings, trash film fanatics and cineastes of sleaze - greetings, and apologies. Real life has exercised its alienable right to get in the way of what your trusty blogger would rather be doing, and as a result I'm somewhat behind on watching Winter of Discontent content, let alone writing the reviews. Pray bear with me a few more days: by the weekend things should be back on course. I have lots of lovely disreputable things lined up for you between now and Christmas, including films by Takeshi Miike, Lucio Fulci and the man with the most inappropriate first name in the history of cinema, Senor Jesus Franco.
In the meantime, please enjoy a gallery of classic exploitation posters, many of which I've already reviewed on these pages, and some of which I haven't ... yet.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Before ‘The Hunger Games’, before ‘Battle Royale’, before ‘The Running Man’, there was ‘The 10th Victim’, perhaps the most day-glo, pop-art, comic-book example of the people-hunting-each-other-down-for-entertainment-value subgenre ever slapped in wash of grimy yellow across a few hundred feet of celluloid.
The plot barely needs dwelling on: in a slightly futuristic society (or at least what a slightly futuristic society looked in 1965), the Big Hunt is highly popular means of channelling violent tendencies and avoiding global conflict – contestants undergo ten rounds, five as hunter, five as victim. Those surviving all ten (by, respectively, killing their prey or murderously turning the tables on their hunter) are allowed to retire from the game with a healthy slab of prize money and the kind of celebrity status that the average Kardashian would bare their booty for. A computer (the 1965 type of computer, all big buttons and flashing lights) randomly pairs off hunters and victims. When it pits Marcello Poletti (Marcello Mastroianni) against Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress), cat-and-mouse suspense crackles with sexual tension as director Elio Petri turns up and the heat and – … oh, who the hell am I kidding?
‘The 10th Victim’ fails on almost every level, mainly because Petri and his four co-writers (yes, that’s right, it took five people to bring a short story by Robert Sheckley to the screen) never seem to agree on whose perspective any given scene is anchored to, how the spatial relationships between character and geography work, or whether the film is sci-fi, thriller, romance, black comedy, satire or out-and-out surrealism. This is nowhere more evident than in the languid mid-film section which fixates on interior design to an almost unnatural degree (seriously, you’ve got Andress at her most voluptuous posed against a picture window on a sofa and the cinematographer is more interested in the positioning of seating and sculpture), and the equally unhurried final act which limps from one funny bit of buffoonery to the next.
Narratively, ‘The 10th Victim’ is a clusterfuck. In terms of performance – Andress is mere set-dressing; Mastronianni wanders around in a daze (a pretty fucking cool daze, natch: this is Mastroianni after all) – it’s a non-starter. As a thriller, it’s just too slow moving. As a sci-fi, it doesn’t really deal in interesting enough concepts or even try to make a coherent microcosm of its dystopia. As a romance, there’s no real chemisty, though damned if Andress doesn’t look more stunning here than even in ‘Dr No’. As a comedy, it’s often just plain embarrassing. As a satire, it fumbles around for its targets, not entirely sure what point it’s trying to make.
As surrealism? Yeah, the film has its moments.
But what really makes it unmissable, what makes it worth an hour and a half of your time and never mind the 400 words of carping that constitute the bulk of this review, is how lusciously, indulgently, dementedly beautiful the whole thing is. ‘The 10th Victim’ is one of those films that you can pause at random and find yourself gazing at an image you immediately want to frame and hang on your living room wall … assuming your living room also contains a bubble chair and a lava lamp.
‘The 10th Victim’ was lensed by Gianni Di Venanzo (previous credits: ‘La Notte’, ‘8½’, ‘Juliet of the Spirits’) and his genius is stamped on every frame.
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
In 1992, Quentin Tarantino shot several thousand volts through the crime genre with ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and inspired a slew of self-consciously quirky caper movies. In 2005, Eli Roth fashioned himself as the poster boy for torture porn with ‘Hostel’ and, yup, inspired a slew of self-consciously nasty horror movies. Perhaps the only real surprise is that it’s taken so long for someone to sashay into a production meeting and say, “Hey, guys, let’s do ‘Reservoir Dogs’ meets ‘Hostel’.”
Ladies and gentlemen, please give a big hand for Kern Saxton’s ‘Sushi Girl’. (If you’re scratching your cranium and trying to place the name, Saxton’s previous credits include short film ‘Porntourage’ and feature debut zombie-movie-as-drug-addiction metaphor ‘Deader Living Through Chemistry’. Subtlety is not the gentleman’s strong point.)
Please take a seat – you’ll be duct-taped to it and savagely beaten in a moment – while we do some work on a plot synopsis. Fish (Noah Hathaway) gets out of prison after six years. He’s kept his mouth shut and ensured that the crew who were with him on the botched diamond heist he ended up in the slammer for have stayed free. He’s spent six years wondering what exactly happened to said diamonds.
Funnily enough, the rest of the crew have been wondering the same thing and they’ve come to the conclusion that Fish somehow managed to stash them before the cops nailed him. Thus it is that Fish is invited to an ostensible welcome home meal at a Chinese restaurant where the main course is a selection of raw fish artfully arranged on the voluptuous body of a naked woman.
No, that kind of thing never happens at my local Chinese restaurant, either. (There are as yet undiscovered tribes in Papua New Guinea who just know what the first comment on this post is going to be.)
So: gathered in this pressure cooker environment (it’s a surprise the sushi isn’t deep fried by the end of the movie) are gang boss Duke (Tony Todd), lank-haired thug Max (Andy Mackenzie), lisping slob Crow (Mark Hamill), and the increasingly nervous Francis (James Duval). Francis is nervous because he thinks Fish might not have had off with the diamonds after all. And he’s very nervous because he’s wearing a wire. Subject of casting choices, Hamill’s every moment onscreen is horribly disturbing. Not because of his characterisation but for how scarily the former Luke Skywalker resembles Jabba the Hutt.
Francis is in a minority as regards belief in Fish’s innocence. No sooner have a couple of glasses of saki been downed and an entrée or two slobbered off the human serving platter that is the eponymous woman (Courtney Palm) than Fish has been forcibly restrained, Duke is laying some threatening and terribly faux-Tarantino dialogue on him, and Max and Crow are playing a game of one-upmanship with Fish as an extremely brutalised pawn.
In purely narrative terms, what this amounts to is: Max fucks Fish’s shit up; small piece of backstory unfolds; Crow fucks Fish’s shit up; another piece of backstory unfolds; repeat; repeat; Mexican standoff; “twist” ending. I say twist ending because the moment you start wondering why the film is titled for a character who does nowt but lie on a table with bits of fish strategically draped over her, then you’re pretty much on course for taking an educated guess at the direction the story takes in its last quarter of an hour. In purely aesthetic terms, it’s wall-to-wall beat-down violence – by fist, toolbox, broken bottle or good old-fashioned handgun – all the way.
‘Sushi Girl’ would be very easy to write off as derivative and uninspired, but for four things.
First, Saxton and his co-writer Destin Pfaff are immensely genre-savvy, knocking exactly how to time the narrative beats, when to cut away from dark, claustrophobic interiors and deliver a blast of action as the heist plays out in flashback.
Secondly, the film assembles a trash-movie-lover’s dream cast only to riff on them subversively: case in point, Danny Trejo wanders into movie, immediately brandishes a machete and is just as summarily despatched. It’s like a distilled version of Samuel L Jackson giving his big scenery chewing speech in ‘Deep Blue Sea’ only to be chowed down by a shark seconds later.
Thirdly, there is absolutely no fucking let up in tension, and for this alone it genuinely earns its comparison to ‘Reservoir Dogs’.
Fourthly – and this is what seals the deal – it utterly looks the biz. Of the spoof trailers that were the chief joy of Tarantino and Rodriguez’s ‘Grindhouse’, ‘Machete’ and ‘Machete Kills’ brought some of the lo-fi grubbiness to the big screen (the former brilliantly, the latter disappointingly), while ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ swamped its drive-in aesthetic in a miasma of what-the-fuckery. ‘Sushi Girl’, though … ‘Sushi Girl’ looks every bit the 70s drive-in exploitationer; the kind of thing that would fall foul of the video nasties witch-hunt in the UK a decade later. It was made in 2012. The dark cynical blood of 1971 pumps through every frame of it.
Monday, November 10, 2014
Exactly how sleazy is ‘Women in Fury’?
Well, to begin with, it’s a women in prison film. You check your sense of aesthetics in at the door when you watch a women in prison film. And probably take a shower afterwards. A cold one.
Secondly, it’s directed by Michele Massimo Tarantini, whose CV includes schoolgirl sleaze opus ‘The Teasers’, the Edwige Fenech sex comedy ‘Policewoman’ trilogy (its middle instalment is subtly titled ‘Policewoman on the Porno Squad’; granted the indigenous title translates more as “vice squad” but still …), and the magnificently named sex ‘n’ jungle quickie ‘Massacre in Dinosaur Valley’ (which, in case anyone should mistake it for a ‘10,000 Years BC’ knock-off, was quickly retitled ‘Cannibal Holocaust 2’).
Thirdly, it features oodles of nudity.
’Kay, I’ll go make a cup of coffee while y’all scour the internet for it.
Everyone back? Good-o! Shall we do the plot synopsis thing? Jolly good! ‘Women in Fury’, which tries to con the viewer that it’s based on a true story, documents the misadventures of Angela Duvall (Suzane Carvalho), whom we first meet at the centre of a media frenzy as she’s found guilty of murder, hustled out of the courtroom and bundled into the back of a van that looks less an official security vehicle than something the production designer managed to borrow from a particularly mobile window cleaner the day before shooting.
While she’s en route to the kind of women’s prison where the uniforms consist of tied-off torso-revealing shirts with only two buttons, a word on the nature of her crime. Angela’s murdered a drug dealer, and instead of the legal system considering that she’s saved them a job, you’d think she was a former sports star charged with shooting his supermodel girlfriend for all the attention the verdict draws. (Sorry. Was that too soon?)
Anyway, it turns out Angela’s innocent. ’Twas her loser dope-fiend brother done the deed, but Angela fraternally takes the rap for him. Bad move, Angie; baaaad move!
The prison is ruled over by the absurdly named Captain Bonifacio (Leonardo Jose), who leaves the day-to-day running of the penitentiary to the obligatory predatory lesbian chief warden (Rosanna Ghessa), and doesn’t really involve himself in anything unless there’s a prison break and then it’s guns, watercannons and helicopters a-go-go as he and his men … But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s fifty minutes’ worth of prison life – with all the cat-fights, shower scenes and lesbianism that said milieu entails – before we get to the break-out.
Angela’s slung in a cell with Joanna (Gloria Cristal) and Paola (Marli Mendes) who respond to the warden’s overtures to Angela by whipping Angela with wet towels and proving their superiority in the time honoured tradition of soft-core girl-girl action. As bad as she’s treated at their hands, Angela’s saved from Joanna’s potentially homicidal intentions by the sympathetic-but-built-like-a-tank Denise (Zeni Pereira). It’s refreshing in this kind of movie that the butch black prisoner is something of a guardian angel rather than an aggressor. However, that’s the only remotely subversive element to ‘Women in Fury’. And Denise remains unable to intervene when the warden (I can’t recall the character being gifted with a name) finally gets Angela in her clutches for what is surely the ne plus ultra of sadistic sapphic prison warden scenes.
While all of this seedy business is going on, a subplot plods away in the background, slowing the pace and padding out the running time. It involves good-natured prison physician Dr Cuna (Henri Pagnoncelli) and his attempts to investigate the events surrounding Angela’s incarceration. This eventually leads him to her brother. Dr Cuna implores him to come forward and tell the true story, thus securing Angela’s release. The lad responds to this altogether reasonable request, and to his sister’s act of selflessness, by not giving a flying fuck.
With a confession from kid bro out of the question and Dr Cuna on Captain Bonifacio’s shit-list, things are looking pretty dismal for our beleaguered heroine. Then the prison break occurs and ‘Women in Fury’ shifts into action movie mode. Now, the escape attempt could have been a brilliantly sustained exercise in suspense, with the pressure cooker tensions and sexual rivalry of the prison spilling out into the steamy and dangerous territory of the jungle. And to be fair, the script does flirt with said possibilities on a couple of occasions. But Tarantini seems intent on making ‘First Blood’ but with half-naked women, and it soon becomes face-palming obvious that his facility as an action director is about on par with Sam Peckinpah as a director of light romantic comedy.
And so the last half hour desperately throws in gunfights, chases, helicopters, jeeps exploding and a desperate final stand in an old church. And does none of it even adequately. The last ten minutes in particular are an exercise in abject tedium. A coda suggests that Angela suffered amnesia as a result of the trauma, regressed to a childlike state and is happier as a result. Which, given that most of the other participants have been decimated long before the closing credits, makes you wonder whose testimony this so-called true story was based on. There’s a lesson here: if you’re making a sleazy women-in-prison film, at least be honest about it.